The Expanding Blaze: A book review by Bob Morris

The Expanding Blaze: How the American Revolution Ignited the World, 1775-1848
Jonathan Israel
Princeton University Press (2017)

A briliant examination of “the crucible of demographic modernity”

As is often true of my reviewing efforts, I read this book in combination with another book, R.R. Palmer’s The Age of the Democratic Revolution: A Political History of Europe and America, 1760-1800, also published by Princeton University Press.

In Setting the World Ablaze, John Ferling invoked metaphors of pyrotechnics when discussing the American War of Independence and they are indeed appropriate figures of speech. The Boston Massacre on December 16, 1773, served as the “spark” and various real or perceived grievances served as “kindling.” Over time, more than 200,000 lives and countless acres of property were consumed or severely damaged. The “firestorm of destruction” extended from New England through Pennsylvania to East Florida in the south, and, to Saint Louis in what was then referred to as Upper Spanish Louisiana in the west.

Derek Beck makes equally effective use of these and other metaphors in his latest book, Igniting the Revolution, by implication and explication as he examines a two-year period that evolves from the Boston Massacre to a cluster of events in the British  Expedition to Lexington on April 19, 1775.

Jonathan Israel also makes brilliant use of pyrotechnical metaphors when tracing the process by which thirteen colonies eventually achieved their independence from what was then the most powerful nation in the western hemisphere.  His scope, however, seems wider than Ferling’s and Beck’s as well as Rick Atkins’ in The British Are Coming. The Age of Revolution was by no means limited to Colonial America. This is clearly indicated by the subtitle of The Expanding Blaze: “How the American Revolution Ignited the World, 1775-1848.” That is why I read his book in combination with Palmer’s.

Consider these lines that Israel cites from one of Philip Freneau’s poems (dated March 1790):

“From that bright spark which first illumed these lands,
See Europe kindling, as the blaze expands,
Each gloomy tyrant, sworn to chain the mind,
Presumes no more to trample on mankind:
Even pitent Louis trembles on his throne,
The generous prince who made our cause his own,…”

Freneau correctly suggests much wider and deeper impact — and significance — of events in the colonies that, even today, few people now realize.

Now consider very carefully these observations, shared in his brilliant Introduction: “Challenging the three main pillars of the Old World ancien régime — monarchy, aristocracy, and religious authority — the Revolution altered, though not without massive resistance, the character of the religious authority and ecclesiastical involvement in politics, law and institutions,, and weakened, even if it did overthrow, the principle of ‘aristocracy.’ Its political and institutional innovations grounded a wholly new kind of republic embodying a diametrically opposed social vision built on shared liberty and equal rights.” Except, of course, for almost all of those who were not white European males.

These are among the subjects of greatest interest to me, also listed to suggest the scope of Israel’s coverage.

o The origins of what he characterizes as “democratic modernity”
o Major early indicators of what led to the Declaration of Independence
o The defining characteristics of what Israel characterizes as “revolutionary constitutionalism”
o Whether pr not Benjamin Franklin was an “American icon”
o The issues associated with Black “emancipation”

o The issues associated with “expropriation” of Native Americans
o The issues associated with “dispossession” of Whites
o What Israel characterizes as “Canada: An Ideological conflict”
o John Adams’ “American Revolution”
o Thomas Jefferson’s “French Revolution”

o The merging “party system” in the 1790s
o The significance of the Haitian Revolution
o The unique significance of Napoleon, Spain, and the Americas”: 1808-1815
o The Revolution of 1848: Republicanism versus Socialism
o Currents and cross-currents in America’s foreign relations (1848-1852)

Let’s return to Israel’s Introduction: “The American Revolution, then, had a dual trajectory and in this respect formed part of a wider transatlantic revolutionary sequence, a series of revolutions in France, Italy, Holland, Switzerland, Germany, Ireland, Haiti, Poland, Spain, Gredece, and Spanish America…The endeavors of the Founding Fathers and their followers abroad prove the deep interaction of the American Revolution and its principles with the other revolutions, substantiating the Revolution’s global role less as directly intervening force than inspirational motor, the primary model, for universal change”

The Expanding Blaze truly is a brilliant examination of what Jonathan Israel so aptly characterizes as “the crucible of demographic modernity.”


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